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By Alicia Sanchez Gill
I know something about trauma. And I’ve known too much about pain for too long. From the moment I experienced the first daggers of sexual abuse at age seven, until last night, when I responded to an email from a stranger requesting resources for a child sexual abuse survivor in their life, my work has centered around my own experiences of harm, and the experiences of survivors who are a lot like me. As a queer, person of color, a survivor of child sexual abuse (living at the intersection of many identities both tangible and intangible) and as a social worker whose life has focused squarely on anti-violence and healing, I often think about the ways survivors heal and resist. In a world that tells us to shrink, a society that tells us we don’t have a right to exist, or do this work, or be the experts on our own lives, we are still here. We create meaning and find hope in our interdependence.
My understanding of abuse is deeply shaped by my own values and my narrative, but also by the stories of the hundreds of hotline calls I have answered, folks I have worked with in support groups, friends, and friends of friends who have bravely and sometimes desperately shared their stories with me. Looking for answers. Hoping for healing. Searching for a more just world, however they might create it. Our stories are woven together in a web of mutual care. What I have learned is that our stories become catalysts for change. What I have learned is that our individual and collective healing takes a network of care, support, and speaking the unspoken.
Child sexual abuse, by its very nature, demands shame and isolation. Our abusers manipulated our voices and then counted on our silence, and the silence of those around us. It is complex because we know that our abusers are often the folks who are closest to us—the ones who are supposed to keep us safe. The ones who look like us and speak our language in a world where we are so often “othered.” It is confusing because our abusers hurt us and then helped us finish science projects, or took us to church or bought us ice cream. It hurts because our abusers are still here, at Sunday dinners, at graduations, at holiday gatherings. For many survivors, the devastating negotiation of speaking our truth and losing loved ones or remaining silent is a choice we should never have had to make. The radical, loving choice for those around us is to dismantle our “culture of quiet.”
I want to vision a place where children are protected from violence and a place where children are supported the very first time they experience harm. I want to vision a place where parents and teachers have paid sick leave, and living wages, and time to be attune to their children’s and student’s needs and behaviors. A place where families aren’t ripped apart through deportations, policing, and a carceral state. I want to vision a place where the protection of children is community-led, not institutionalized. Where child safety, health and well-being is not placed solely on the shoulders of women and femmes.
Networks of care for our children, and for the adults who have survived means creating community-based responses to violence. Responses which do not engage in punitive justice, but hold perpetrators accountable and keep survivors safe. It allows us to wrestle with dichotomies of good/bad, and the various complexities and nuances of the communities with whom we are engaged. This may involve affirming church communities, it may involve family, and friends. We are often the first people child sexual abuse survivors go to when they tell, both as adults and in childhood—families, friends, partners, co-workers. Believing survivors, being prepared and utilizing all of our resources in a coordinated, safe way, we can help survivors feel seen and heard, and protect the children who have yet to come.
Recently, I watched a terrifying, but fascinating video of fire ants. These ants work together so closely and in such a coordinated way, that they become a moving, protected, semi-solid structure. And yet, when a barrier falls in their way, like a tree branch, they are able to navigate around the barrier in a way that behaves almost like water. And not one ant got left behind. What if our networks of care could be like the fire ants? Solid, and coordinated, but adaptable and responsive to need? Our networks of care center around safety, rehabilitation, accountability and healing—creating communities where child sexual abuse is no longer tolerated, and in fact, eradicated. Where those of us who have survived are not left to pick up the pieces of our shame alone, but are met with a chorus of “we believe you” and “it’s not your fault.” Networks of care recognize that when violence happens, the whole community needs healing.
For those of us who never told, or told and weren’t believed, for those of us who were left unprotected, we know the swelling of betrayal that rises up in our throats. Our stories are powerful calls to action. Our stories allow us to connect to one another, and name our abuse and our abusers. Our stories are grounded in love for ourselves and our communities. Our stories help make manifest the world we want to see. It is through these deep and meaningful connections, these networks of care, that I was able to come back from my darkest edges, and begin healing. What I have learned from survivors is that it is our interdependence that will save us.
Alicia Sanchez Gill is a queer, Afro latinx survivor. She has many years of engaging in intersectional work through various gender-based violence, HIV, and LGBTQ programs and has many more years of experience tending to her heart and the hearts of those closest to her. She has been responsible for crisis intervention with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and folks experiencing acute mental health crises, sex work organizing and HIV housing advocacy and now focuses on research because no one else can tell our stories like we can.
Alicia holds a masters of social work and has conducted research and policy writing on reproductive justice, the intersections of HIV and intimate partner violence, trauma-informed care, street-based economies, and harm-reduction models. She believes data can help tell our stories and can be both accessible and impactful. She is deeply committed to dismantling oppression, uplifting solidarity across identities, and helping to collectively shape a more just world.